A review of The Unblemished by Conrad Williams that originally appeared in Black Static #4:-
RED IN TOOTH AND CLAW: A CONRAD WILLIAMS FEATURETTE
The Unblemished (Virgin Books paperback, 347pp, £7.99) debuted in 2006 as a hardback from US indie publisher Earthling and went on to win the International Horror Guild Award for Best Novel, ahead of a field that included Stephen King’s Lisey’s Story.
The novel opens, more or less, with photographer Bo and a chance encounter with a strange man at a pub, who offers him a metaphysical map, which Bo accepts never thinking that there could be anything to it, and at first this seems to be the case, with no physical evidence of any change. But in the days ahead, there’s an outbreak of grave desecration all over London, with corpses being eaten by the vandals, and Bo gets hints that these could be connected with the unnatural bargain he has made. Meanwhile Sarah Hickman and her teenage daughter Claire have fled London to avoid the attentions of ruthless criminal Malcolm Manser. Claire is mentally disturbed and has a strange growth festering in her armpit, but Sarah wishes to avoid hospitals. Manser is a sociopath who gets off on having sex with women whose limbs have been freshly amputated, and he intends for Claire to be his next victim. Claire is also of importance to Gyorsi Salavaria, an infamous serial killer and cannibal who went into seclusion many years ago, but has been acting as Manser’s mentor.
All of this is by way of laying the groundwork for what follows. Sarah tries to start anew in the Suffolk seaside town of Southwold, only circumstances force her and Claire back to London with Salavaria and Manser in pursuit. But the London to which they return is not the same as the city they left. A race of flesh eating monsters have infiltrated the city, in completion of a promise that was made to them centuries before, and with each day they have grown in numbers and power, so that the social order has totally collapsed, with a fog of confusion over everything and no-one actually able to put their finger on precisely what has gone so badly wrong. Human beings barricade themselves inside their dwellings or stalk the dangerous streets with weapons in hand and one eye always looking behind. Bo and Claire are of importance to the creatures’ plans, and Salavaria believes himself to be one of their number, a half breed prince destined to lead the race into a new era. The scene is set for a fight against ancient evil, with the fate of mankind hanging in the balance.
The publisher’s blurb for this book describes it as ‘an epic drama of flesh-eating monsters and hunted survivors that rivals 28 Days Later’, and there’s much of truth to that description if you allow for the fact that Williams’ monsters are not zombies. Within his chosen medium, that of the written word, Williams is every bit as much the innovator as Danny Boyle, assimilating ideas and imagery from other media to make over for his own ends. His others, with their hidden stingers and habit of lardering their victims, planting eggs inside them, bring to mind such monsters as Eugene Tooms from The X-Files and the creatures of Aliens. But there are hints too of an older tradition, the little people of Machen and, in the back story that provides the pretext for their attack on London, the tale of Hamelin and its people reneging on their bargain with the Piper. Williams takes all these diverse elements along with many others, to produce a bleak and phantasmagorical vision of society overwhelmed by the flesh eaters that is as familiar as the last zombie movie out of the starting gate but also uniquely his own. And while we may regard some of the plot features, such as Bo’s involvement with the map and the link to the Black Death/Great Fire of London, as far fetched, something about them of contrivance and convenience, they serve well as props that enable Williams to craft scenes of outré terror and macabre visions of the infernal on London’s streets.
Human evil has a role to play in the proceedings, with Malcolm Manser as its apostle. In Manser Williams has created a truly memorable psychopath; an early scene in which he pursues his predilection for amputees is among the most unsettling the book has to offer, with graphic description and a chilling matter of factness. It could be argued that the others feast on human flesh because it is in their nature to do so, but for Manser the atrocities he commits are more considered and therefore morally culpable acts. The writer’s daring is seen in the way he simply uses this character as a foil for Salavaria and to drive the action along by his pursuit of Sarah, whereas a lesser talent would not have been able to resist the temptation to place such a monster at the heart of the story, to make it about him. Similarly with Salavaria himself, who shares many of Manser’s traits, but ultimately is shown to be as indifferent to his protégé as Manser is to those he kills, more so. Through the use of this half breed, a creature who has spent so long among humans that he has assumed some of their attributes, Williams cleverly gives us an intro into the mindset of those others, who might else remain simply ciphers. Salavaria’s monstrous appetites, his hopes and expectations, the moments of fear and doubt that he experiences, provide the reader with a bridge to an evil that might otherwise have remained totally inhuman and beyond our understanding, simply a personification of cannibal lust.
Bo and Sarah are the antithesis of Manser and Salavaria. He, just like Salavaria, has hopes and expectations, to do with his career and girlfriend, and it’s the desire for something out of the ordinary to enter his life that allows this evil to happen to the city he loves. And he spends the rest of the book at first in denial and then desperately scrabbling round trying to make things right. Sarah is the most sympathetic of the characters, the archetypal mother figure growing in stature as the book progresses, a person who is forced to become hard and quickly if she and those she cares about are to survive. Her utter devotion to Claire shines through, and she has to make compromises with her own nature if she is to effectively protect her daughter, her essential passivity replaced with a take charge attitude that casts the weaker men into the shade. There are echoes in her character of another Sarah and protective mother, the Sarah Connor of Terminator 2, though Williams never goes so far as to put automatic weapons in her hands.
The finely crafted prose and strong sense of place that helped define Williams’ previous novels are also in evidence here. Southwold, the quintessential seaside town in the off season, is brought to vivid life, the empty hotels and shops, the deserted cliff tops and beach at night, with the suggestion of evil rolling in on the high tide. London, or rather the distorted reflection of the city that this book contains, is brought to life on the page, so that all the sights and sounds and smells of the city come cascading in on the reader’s senses. Every locale is given the stamp of authenticity by the details Williams piles on, so that we feel as if we know these places too, have lived there, and this familiarity adds an extra frisson to his portrait of a world collapsing into chaos. There’s a cinematic feel to the chain of events, with so many memorable incidents, such as the three comic cut out underlings who challenge Salavaria, the flight from flesh eaters across the rooftops, edge of the seat scenes in which Sarah confronts her enemies, all of these driving the narrative forward to the inevitable final confrontation, vividly acted out inside some otherworldly cathedral. From first word to last Williams holds the attention, his prose achieving a kind of lyricism, both beguiling and repellent as it captures scenes of utter depravity and horror, throwing them back into the mind’s eye, like battery acid splashed on the imagination, so that phrases like ‘not for the squeamish’ carry extra weight.
In The Unblemished Conrad Williams has produced his longest and finest work to date, a book that reprises and expands upon themes he has addressed before, which pays homage to the tropes of its genre while taking them off in new and exciting directions. Kudos to him, and also to Virgin for making this novel available to a larger audience.